Old Men Return to the Woods

Courtesy of Al Reiner '64

Courtesy of Al Reiner ’64

You can’t go home again, argues Thomas Wolfe in his famous novel, but we do. Sometimes in retirement we move back to an earlier home place, and we often join family, friends or classmates at reunions where we celebrate our past. 

In August I attended my 50-year reunion of the class of 1964 at the New York State Ranger School, which trained us to be forest technicians—men who did much of the practical woods work of forestry.

The Ranger School did more than that for most of us. We were young, just out of high school, and we needed guidance. The faculty and staff helped transform us into young men ready for adult roles.

The Ranger School in 1979 looked essentially as it did in 1964

The Ranger School in 1979 looked essentially as it did in 1964

Ranger School

The Ranger School is on the Oswegatchie River as it enters Cranberry Lake in the western Adirondack Mountains of New York. School started in March and ended the following February, and that unusual school year allowed us to learn forestry in concert with the seasons.

We lived, learned and worked on a schedule set by the school. Most of us were not accustomed to so little freedom, but we adapted or left. About a third of the entering class didn’t graduate—they were kicked or dropped out. The school and the work were serious.

We worked with and maintained machetes, axes and chainsaws. We learned to climb poles with belts and climbing spurs. We learned to use good surveying instruments. We worked outside in wilderness areas of vast size for days at a time. It was easy to twist an ankle or wander off in the wrong direction. The work was hard.

We had classes in the morning, including Saturday, and we had plenty of homework for the evenings. The School had one curriculum and we all took the same courses; no electives. In the afternoons we did field work, Monday through Friday.

We had four major field experiences of about two weeks each during which there were no classes. My favorites were the timber cruise (estimating the amount of timber on a tract of land) in the fall and the management plan in the winter.

Skip, my partner for the cruise, was an ex-marine who lived off campus with his wife. He brought cinnamon buns and coffee in the morning, and we canoed through the early fog about a mile and a half around the southern part of Cranberry Lake to the place where we started work. We sat on a large rock eating buns and drinking coffee while taking in the sunrise amid fall colors.

Winter in the Adirondacks is not to be denied. On February 15, 1950, The Schenectady Gazette reported 62 degrees below zero for the Frost Pocket at the Ranger School.

A snapshot from 1964 of classmates working in the woods. Courtesy of Al Reiner '64

A snapshot from 1964 of classmates working in the woods. Courtesy of Al Reiner ’64

We worked outside in mid-winter to gather the field data for a management plan, which involved surveying and mapping a tract in the northern part of the school forest. We were carried out to the woods early in the morning in the back of an open truck and we were picked up near dark. We sat on loose benches lined up in the bed of the truck, and we turned our backs to the icy winter air or snow. There was no heated bus with soft seats for us. In the woods, we worked all day on snowshoes, measuring distances and trees, marking the changes from one forest type to another. I still remember the silent grey and white landscape of our northern hardwood forest in winter.

Our teachers were excellent in the classroom and the woods. They were men with forestry experience and good teaching skills. Most were themselves Ranger School graduates, and they all believed in the school’s mission.

The School was isolated—1.7 miles from Wanakena, a small settlement that had one general store. Star Lake, the nearest town with a tavern was 8 or 9 miles away. We hitched rides and walked to Star Lake on Saturday nights to drink beer and eat restaurant food.


We became forest technicians, and our diplomas certified it. But there was more.

Richard Rohr, in a book entitled, Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation, offers these five lessons for men:

  • Life is hard
  • You are not important
  • Your life is not about you
  • You are not in control
  • You are going to die.

Rohr is a Catholic priest and a Franciscan, and he distilled these promises from reading about male initiations across cultures and time, and by conducting workshops for men on initiation. Most initiations involved men taking boys to isolated locations away from women and children where the boys learned the lessons and challenges of manhood.

In modern America we seldom experience one universal male initiation. Instead, we grow piecemeal to manhood.

From the vantage point of later life, we can see that men who learn Rohr’s lessons will have lives grounded in a reality larger than personal pleasure, a reality that helps them sustain contributions and responsibilities throughout life, and then prepares them for the challenge of death.

These are the lessons of the Ranger School, and at our reunion, we tended toward stories about these themes. We talked about our work. Most of us worked hard. We told stories about family that tended to emphasize the middle lessons of humility and lack of control.

In the Woods

For me, one of the most poignant events at the reunion was our walk into the woods to a memorial we had established for a classmate who was killed in Vietnam. We spoke of his time at the School and what some of us remembered about him. We shared a moment of silence in those north woods.

It struck me at the memorial that we shared one simple characteristic—we were all at home in the woods, even those of us who spent most of our careers inside. The woods, even with its dangers, offered us quiet and tranquility.

Being at home in the woods may seem like a small thing, and I suppose it is. But for us, the lessons we learned at the Ranger School and the friends we made were all centered in the woods. For us, for a group of old men whose lives are rounding the final bend, the woods is where we learned what we needed to know.